Examining the Banlist: Complaints, Clarifications & Suggestions

Banlist discussion has become all the rage in recent years. The people who manage the banlist understand that changes should be made rarely and with good reason, though as we all know you can’t please everybody. Players still complain about the banning of Splinter Twin, and there is plenty of discussion over what could be banned or unbanned from week to week in Modern. Personally I am mindful of the overall health of the format, though I try to focus on playing what I am allowed to play.

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That said, after several iterations of “no changes” to the banlist it has become an increasingly popular point of conversation. Articulating one’s thoughts are difficult enough given the restrictions language places upon us, and this is only made more difficult by the hyperbole that’s rampant in the Magic community. Often you’ll see the word “need” used in place of “want,” as subjective preferences are used in place of objective measures of quality. Personally I would love to play with Treasure Cruise for at least another year, but that’s a bad direction for the format.

Today I’m going to go over my thoughts on many of the more-discussed cards for banning or unbanning in Modern. My goal is to offer a clear and objective analysis of what these cards mean for format health. Obviously I’m human and I can’t eliminate all bias, but I’ll do my best to cover both sides.

Legal Cards That Should Remain Legal

Gitaxian Probe

Let’s start with a hard one, eh? People hate Gitaxian Probe. In my experience, Gitaxian Probe is great training wheels for newer players who don’t always respect interaction if they can’t see it, though most commonly in the hands of more experienced players only green-lights fast kills against bad hands. Gitaxian ProbePerhaps this green light pushes things, though mostly this only comes into play when you have a deck that can’t consistently interact with the combo decks in the first place.

My bias here is that Grixis Delver is favored against literally every Gitaxian Probe deck whether they can see my hand or not. Modern definitely doesn’t need more cards like this, and the printing of Probe is one that I would certainly chock up in the “mistake” column, though its legality is one of few things that combo decks have going for them in Modern. We’ve already banned all of the most powerful card selection, so it makes sense to at least let them have this one way to efficiently churn through their deck a little bit. We give so many amazing tools to combat the combo decks that I would like to leave them with at least a short list of cards that keep these decks on the high side of competitive. Getting this much information for no mana is very powerful, but if your opponent has the relevant tools to interact then knowing about them doesn’t amount to much. It’s not like Cabal Therapy is Modern-legal.

Mox Opal

Mox Opal would be a completely heinous card for Modern combo decks, and the reason that it remains legal is because a combo deck that could exploit it doesn’t exist. Affinity and Lantern Control are relatively easy to beat if you put your mind to it, and they have plenty of bad matchups even without hate. It looks weird to see that Chrome Mox is (very justifiably) banned while Mox Opal remains legal, and really it’s just the lack of a Mox Opal combo deck that makes this so.

Mox OpalI definitely would have been on board with a Mox Opal ban during Eldrazi Winter seeing as Affinity remained great during such a degenerate time, but since the Eye of Ugin banning Affinity has been far from dominant. I think that Mox Opal will inevitably be featured in a deck that merits a ban, though for now I believe it is merely very good and is only featured in decks that are fine to allow in the format.

The Eighth Edition Dilemma

Listen, Eighth Edition would hardly be printable as a Standard-legal set in 2016. That said, Modern has plenty of other stuff that fails this same test. Do I like Blood Moon? Hell no! Do I despise Tron? Absolutely! But the hosers and oddballs from Eighth and Ninth are things that increase the diversity of Modern, and the bannings of these things would fracture the player base.

A format as large as Modern will inevitably feature lopsided matchups. Hosers draw a lot of attention due to how blatant they are in this regard, but banning them just shifts the format to have different lopsided matchups. Enough of the player base is giddy about the opportunity to Tron or Blood Moon people, and these decks are a small enough percentage of the metagame that a ban here strikes me as very heavy-handed. Yes, these cards lead to feel-bads. That said, if you can generate a format with zero feel-bads, then you have a million-dollar idea in your pocket that you are wasting.

Cards of Dubious Legality

Golgari Grave-Troll

Golgari Grave-Troll’s legality leads to one of two things. It is either another legal card that nobody cares about, or one that pushes the format to need some graveyard hate. While Dredge does have more bad game-one matchups than it ever had in its heyday in other formats, it’s difficult to ignore the impact that Dredge has had on Modern as of late.

Golgari Grave-TrollThis one is difficult to manage from a business perspective. It is a horrible image to ban something that you unbanned in recent memory, and there really isn’t another ban that would prevent some form of Dredge from being a big player in Modern.

Given that Modern has plenty of matchups where one player is leaning on sideboard cards as it is, Dredge’s presence in the format is something that has to be monitored but isn’t necessarily ban-worthy. Dredge’s results have not been indicative of format dominance, and Modern remains incredibly popular despite the deck rearing its ugly head. Should the format’s popularity decrease and/or the deck’s popularity increase, then I would expect some action. I expect the deck to remain legal for the foreseeable future.

Become Immense

I see plenty of very intelligent people saying that this is an obvious ban, though I put it in the maybe column. If your argument is that Infect is a turn-three deck and deserves a ban, then your position falls a little flat. Infect was a turn-three deck before the printing of Become Immense.

become immenseBecome Immense’s legality likely has more to do with Death’s Shadow Zoo than Infect. Death’s Shadow gets much higher access to fast kills due to the presence of Become Immense than Infect, and is also generally more difficult to interact with using red removal spells.

Mutagenic Growth strikes me as the more blatantly degenerate card in the impact-to-cost department, though both Mutagenic Growth and Become Immense are tough cards to approach from a ban perspective. Wizards doesn’t like just killing decks in a general sense, and banning either of these cards would have a very heavy impact on one or both of these decks. Like Grave-Troll, I feel that these cards are more cards to watch than things requiring immediate bans. A ban on either of these pump spells is likely to draw a split reaction similar to when Splinter Twin got the axe, which strikes me as the reason why WotC would be slow to act.

Cards That I Would Ban

Simian Spirit Guide

One of the most fair decks that Simian Spirit Guide enables is a non-interactive combo deck that kills on turn four with Ad Nauseam. That’s not a good starting point. Outside of that, the card is used to power out early Chalice of the Voids and Blood Moons, once again on the spectrum of “more reasonable” things that the card does.

Simian Spirit GuideSimian Spirit Guide has shown up recently in both Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Dredge decks to facilitate a higher volume of turn-three kills. It was part of Colorless Eldrazi during Eldrazi Winter, and no deck that’s trying to play interactive games touches it. It’s a Modern-legal Lotus Petal, and its legality is something of a farce.

Simian Spirit Guide isn’t dominating Modern, but it is problematic and it falls on the opposite side of the comparison to Chrome Mox as Mox Opal. It is being used to facilitate fast kills, and probably should have been banned earlier. I already feel that Modern is a great format as is, though this ban is the shakeup that makes the most sense with regard to the stated philosophy of the format, and is consistent with regard to cards that are already banned.

There are other cards that I would like to see banned, but they’re all matters of preference. Some people hate Blood Moon, while I hate Cavern of Souls. Ancient Stirrings being far and away the format’s most powerful cantrip is something that I’m not on board with, but it would be hypocritical for me to defend Blood Moon while attacking these cards at length. Simian Spirit Guide is the one card that is currently legal that is the most detrimental to Modern.

Cards That Should Remain Banned

Stoneforge Mystic

Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of artifact hate and Stoneforge Mystic is fragile. That’s not what this ban is about. White decks need a reason not to play Stoneforge Mystic in a format where it’s legal, and that is why several of the green cards on the banlist are there. Stoneforge MysticSome decks are good against Stoneforge Mystic. Some decks are also good against Punishing Fire. I’m pretty on board with this card being banned.

The position that Stoneforge should be unbanned and Batterskull should be banned is also just bizarre to me. “Why don’t we put the less individually powerful card on the banlist? That’s a good look!” There are decks that play Batterskull currently and it plays an interesting role and offers lifegain to decks that wouldn’t otherwise have it. It also comes down late enough in the game not to be oppressive. Stoneforge Mystic functionally ends some number of games on turn two, and that is not the direction that Modern should head.

Bloodbraid Elf

Deathrite Shaman was a villain, but the position that Bloodbraid Elf isn’t messed up as well is ill-founded. Currently Jund decks have very powerful cards in the one-through-three slot that make interaction with much of the format easy, and then a four-slot that’s awkward and fluctuating. Assuming that the rest of your deck is good, Bloodbraid Elf is great everywhere. It adds consistency and card advantage plus free mana at the top of the curve.

Bloodbraid elfJund is already a very powerful interactive deck, but if you want it to be the only interactive deck then I strongly recommend unbanning Bloodbraid Elf. With Liliana, the Last Hope and Kolaghan’s Command as back up, the notion of grinding out Bloodbraid Elf Jund sounds impossible. Unbanning cards that specifically benefit decks that are already performing well is a very bizarre policy, and one that I do not support.

Splinter Twin

Control has some significant barriers to success in Modern, it’s true. That said, combo-control is a very oppressive archetype, and while I was surprised at the Splinter Twin banning, I do support it. Playing a non-Splinter Twin blue deck was ill-advised when the card was legal. The deck’s general power level in the format, coupled with its sideboarding advantage since opponents have to guess if they’ll leave in the combo, was a little much.

It is often cited that Splinter Twin would keep deck X in check—given the frequency that this position is stated the logical conclusion seems to be that the deck is too good against too many things. It’s hard to argue that the banning of Twin didn’t open up the format. Maybe you don’t like the way the format opened since then, though the format is very diverse and that drives its general popularity. And yes, popularity isn’t a measure of quality, but it’s paramount from a business perspective.

Preordain

It’s very odd to me that this card is a common consideration among players for an unban. The game has moved away from cantrips on this power level, and for good reason. I would love to sleeve up Preordain again, because it makes my deck better than your deck. This card simply offers too much consistency for too little cost. PreordainIt’s really a non-starter for a discussion of unbanning, though I’m not really sure how to illustrate that if you don’t already agree with this position. The official statements from WotC also don’t help me much here.

What I will say is this: if you’re playing off the top of your deck, and I get to look at two extra cards on some number of my draws, I’m going to execute my deck’s plan more consistently than you. I will draw fewer lands and more spells that matter. Whether I’m a combo, control, or tempo deck, I’m simply going to find my relevant things more than you’ll find yours, and that enables me to beat you even if your average power level is higher than mine. You will draw more lands and ill-timed spells over time than I will. Serum Visions is widely played despite awkward templating. Preordain would make every Serum Visions deck better by a lot, and would also show up in most if not all of the blue non-Serum Visions decks.

Reasonable Unbans

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

No, I don’t think that they are going to unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor. But I do think that if it were legal it would not be overly format-warping, and would not dominate by any stretch of the imagination. Jace the Mind SculptorTurn four is pretty late by Modern Standards, and Jace doesn’t suddenly make control decks good against the Urza’s Towers and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacles that have been crushing them.

The fear that Jace might be too good will keep him on the banlist. There’s really no pressure to unban Jace outside of the fact that some players would like to cast him. Jace would more than likely be totally fine, though the fact that Jace was banned in Standard makes the fallout from unbanning and needing to reban too big of a risk from the perspective of the people who manage the format. I understand the position, even if I disagree.

A Healthy Modern

Changes to the banlist have understandably slowed since the removal of the Modern Pro Tour, which I think was absolutely a positive change. The fact that I currently enjoy playing Modern definitely colors my opinion, but I believe from a game-design and business perspective that the format is doing great. From that perspective I’m on board with Simian Spirit Guide being unceremoniously banned, though it wouldn’t surprised me in the least to see no changes to the banlist with the Aether Revolt update.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan Overturf
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter

18 thoughts on “Examining the Banlist: Complaints, Clarifications & Suggestions

  1. Hey Ryan. For starters, good job on this article yet one more time.
    I would like to speak a little bit about the only thing I disagree with:
    By unbanning Preordain, you essentially power up the 3 decks that have the biggest “issues” at the competitive Modern scene at the moment, meaning Blue based Control decks, Spell based Combo decks and Tempo decks. By banning Simian Spirit Guide you nerf them at the same time. I would love if all of your choices were the case for Wizards, but Preordain would be fine I Feel. On top of that, it feels ,as you state as well, highly hypocritic to have Ancient Stirrings legal and Preordain banned. It’s literally 100% crazy. I would really be confused if they didnt unban this card, except if they were to ban Ancient Stirrings.
    My view would be:
    Unban Preordain
    Ban Simian Spirit Guide and monitor the Dredge situation.
    Greetings, George.

    1. The issue being is non control blue decks will run it also. Remeber when infect ran serum visions? Now imagine preordain in its place. Its actually really good. I used to run ponder in my infecr decks when it was standard legal.

  2. i cant disagree more about simian spirit guide, without the ape, you basicaly erase combo decks from modern, or at least, the only one capable of competition (ad nauseam). breach using SSG it’s a consequence of modern being too fast, but, again, this is not about SSG per se

    About preordain, im confused too. Why decks like death’s shadow, infect, dredge, rg titan and a big etc can have consistency in form of raw power and blue decks cant have good card selection?

  3. Breach decks used SSG for a while, yes, but they’ve mostly stopped now. It ended up being a close-but-not-perfect fit.

    The only deck playing SSG now (with any real frequency) is ad nauseam, which isn’t a problem deck and isn’t making anyone hate modern.

    I’ve heard the rhetoric along the lines of “SSG does unfair things & should be banned” but as you very clearly stated with Mox Opal, if nobody’s actually using it, or doing unfair things with it, it’s fine and should remain legal.

    I think you sort of backed yourself into a corner with this one, because the logic you applied to Mox Opal very much applies to simian spirit guide here (I.e. It could *potentially* be broken, but at the moment it isn’t, I mean when was the last time a guided-out blood moon was a serious dominant problem?), and your argument to ban SSG just comes over as a rant about the card’s future potential rather than what it’s actually doing.

    For that reason, I think SSG is fine. “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken” seems to spring to mind. Nobody ever called out for an ad nauseam ban, which is what an SSG ban would amount to.

    1. Oh and bloodbraid elf wasn’t banned for being too good. Go back and look at wizards’ official statement!

      It was banned because they felt Jund was overperforming (deathrite was the cause) and they needed to axe a card that *only* Jund was playing, to minimise splash damage. They picked bloodbraid bot because of power bur because it was a card other decks weren’t using at the time.

      And yes, it became abundantly clear in the following weeks/months that banning bloodbraid elf had no effect. The card was fine, and banning it didn’t solve anything. They had to ban deathrite shaman to finally achieve what they wanted for the deck. Bloodbraid should come back off the banlist 100%.

  4. Awesome article Ryan. I agree on almost all of the cards and you gave a good explanation of your reasoning. I personally wouldnt mind seeing the ape get the axe aswell. It lets to some very degenerate draws like you mentioned.
    The only thing I disagree with is Stoneforge.
    You actually list all the reasons why Stoneforge isnt a problem but says it should remain on the banlist because its an auto include in white decks that want a good fair card. By this premise I could mention 10 cards that you should be banned. And just to mention creatures, goyf and snapcaster should get the axe aswell. As green and blue should be looking for reason not play them. Which is either synergy or the deck is a combo deck.
    I dont get why white has to remain a sideboard color and especially now that the format is so aggressive sfm might just be what the doctor ordered for Jeskai or Esper to be viable again.

    On a side note. You are awesome on coverage. Big fan.

  5. Changes to the banlist hasn’t been slowed. We had two unbans and one ban in the second BR update of the year. Usually there’s only the one in January to spice up the PT. If we have a January with no changes you could say that however.

  6. What a joy to read such a sensible banlist article amongst the sea of clickbaity, ban-mania articles. You clearly understand what makes modern the format it is, instead of demanding it gets dumbed down to the levels of standard, while losing what separated them. You also understand that we don’t ban things because “you don’t like them”. Heavy – handed bans are what got us to this place in modern, where fair decks are struggling and people cry for bans to fix their problems instead of answers that don’t tear the format apart.

    That being said, i do disagree on a few things. First, Preordain can totally come off. It powers up the 3 most suppressed archetypes, combo, control and tempo. It helps them in the right way, consistency, not speed. It is only a slight upgrade, so it is extremely safe. If anything is actually a Preordain away from needing a ban, it was not long for this world anyway. Second, stoneforge mystic feels incredibly safe. Testing on this site showed it made almost no impact on any matchups, most importantly even jeskai could handle it, and they don’t even have access to k commamd, the cleanest answer to her in the format. Jtms may be safe now due to the formats speed, but if the format EVER slowed down he becomes a monster. Basically, for the same reasons you say BBE cant be unbanned, jtms cannot. Finally, saying ssg should be banned for doing nothing fair while putting up next to 0 results is silly considering earlier you said mox opal and dredge are fine, cards with much higher results that also do nothing fair. Being unfair is not ban criteria, and you do a great job avoiding this argument in the rest of the article.

    All in all, despite a few disagreements on my end, well written. Even the few things i disagree on largely come down to opinion and i can see why you went the way you did (except ssg, he is fine, this is not opinion, it fills 0 ban criteria and the loose things you could ban it for can be applied to aboit half the format atm)

  7. I Disagree on simian spirit guide ban, because it kills a deck a completely. a deck which i hate to play against but is not putting opressive results it is just a combo deck.

    Yes two simian spirit guides can put a blood moon turn one, but you need to spend 4 cards of your inicial hand to do that and if the oponnent has basics in hand probably the game will not swing towards the 1st turn bood moon player it happened to me and i won over a blood moon on 1st turn only attacking with two creatures with 7 cards locked out on my hand except for those two creature.So i understand the problema but is as much problematic as when affinity drops the whole hand with four creatures and a plating on turn one or a etched champion turn one followed by plating to be equipped on turn two

    chalice of the void trick is less significant since on turn two is still good and the decks that play that kind of trick already have good matchups against burn infect and death shadow which seems to be in my opinion, the matchups where the chalice is at his best.

    If used past those turns with other cards is just a worst mana ramp with some advantages when it comes to pay for a spell Pierce or mana leak or pay is cost as creature which might indicate you are not winning the game.

    Jace unban would be bad, decks would be constructed around having him safely enter on turn 3 4 or 5 (whatever would be the best shell for him) and after that is a crazy advantage on the long game

  8. Feel like the logic for ssg and opal should be the same. Either they dont belong because fast mana like that doesnt belong in modern, or they can both stay until they get oppressive. Opal is putting up far far better results than guide just by being played in affinity. So I dont see how you can say guide needs to go to neuter some tier 2 decks like ad naus and grishoalbrand but opal can stay despite being a tier one mainstay that forces everyone into stony silence nautres claim and ancient grudge whether they like it or not.

    Id like to see them both go, but id also like to see either the consistency or speed of infect dredge and ds zoo reduced so more decks can keep up. We no longer have to always keep mana up like we did vs twin, but we still often have to have a specific answer on t2 or t3 or else lose the game anyways.

  9. Like the article must say I like what dredge has done for the format in making it more diverse. It is fun hitting dredge with rest in peace or having fuel for ooze haha and also who would have thought skred red ooo my word. I for 1 would not like to see any bans, want to see how the format evolves from here on.

  10. it seems like top would be a more reasonable unban that jace would. countertop was soft banned out of extended due to time constraints and too many people going to time. yet it seems like we could diversify the format by unbaning it. the only thing we would have to do is make rounds 60 minutes instead of 50.

    1. Ouch, no!

      Every six rounds, adding another hour to a tournament? It would make larger tournaments ridiculous. It’s already nearly 10 or 11 at night quite often when a cut to top8 is made, and everyone is hungry and exhausted. The time constraints thing is a very real and legit reason to keep top banned.

      It would be fine online because of the personal timer. I wonder if a future online format could allow it to be played. Who knows.

    2. From a practical standpoint, asking for a Top unban is a complete waste of time. The card is bad for Wizards’ goals, not just for the format, but for Magic in general. It ruins tournament experiences and does horrendous things to coverage. Wizards knows this (and has basically said as much), and if you’re familiar at all with their statements on banlist philosophy, you know Top is a hard lock to stay banned.

  11. Ban SSG, Unban JTMS. I’d be more fine w/the idea of unbanning Jace if they are also committing to another reprint in MM17. W/the EMA reprint he is down to $60, but w/all the pent up desire to play him, feels like he would be as expensive as Goyf real fast. Banning SSG only makes sense if they have finally decided that fast mana w/no additional card cost is bad and they don’t want it in Modern. Both the red rituals and Mox Opal would also have to go. Cards like Infernal Plunge would be fine as they still require other resources to be expended to gain the value. Given the lack of results for SSG decks, it feels like you really can’t ban SSG w/o banning other stuff too.

    As an Infect player, I wouldn’t really care much if BI was banned. Honestly, it would mean I could skip worrying about filling my yard w/fetches and I would run a set of Botanical Sanctum in the deck. Less fetches also makes Groundswell less good in the shell, so it’s possible the list would remain fetch heavy to bring that card back in. Might, Vines, Mutagenic, and Defense are likely enough pump spells tho, so maybe a couple of Serum Visions would find their way back into the list again. Preordain would certainly find its way in over Visions if it was unbanned.

    What’s funny is that banning 8th wouldn’t get rid of Tron and Blood Moon, they would need to get rid of both 8th and 9th for that. Or just ban the cards that are issues and leave the rest alone. Choke, and Boil would be gone, but Boiling Seas and Flashfires would still be around.

    A few other more fringe cards that would be lost to Modern (not a complete list):

    Bribery
    City of Brass
    Dingus Egg
    Merchant Scroll
    Obliterate
    Plow Under

  12. I would actually like to see Vampire Hexmage be banned and Dark Depths be unbanned. It would allow for a combo deck to come into the meta. Blood moon is still a thing, GQ, tech edge and fulminator mage all exist to police lands. The deck can’t accelerate without exploration or manabond. I think it would be a way to keep linear/non-interactive decks in check.

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